The Question Game

A few months ago, the New York Times ran a story about a psychology test, suggesting that a set of 36 questions could make people fall in love.  The author tried it, and apparently, it worked for her. It worked for the Times, too.  So many people read the story that the Times embedded the 36 questions into their app, easily downloadable for the lovelorn.

I love this story not just for its romcom qualities, but because it champions an overlooked and often abused part of our interpersonal communication: how to ask the right questions.

Deployed correctly, a good question cuts through small talk and talking points. It elicits a thoughtful and sometimes lengthy response.  The answers can be emotional and educational.  Every relationship, whether business or personal, begins and blossoms with questions like, “How are you?  What do you need?  How can we help?”

But bad questions abound, which can lead to shoddy or incomplete information exchanges or feeling like neither side quite “gets it”. Everyone needs a better question game. Start here:

  1. Write them down. Gah, what a hassle this sounds like.  But for a big conversation, say a business pitch or a job interview, you don’t want to wing it.  Writing down a few questions forces you to consider what information you actually need.  Seeing the questions in print will also alert you to too long or confusing questions, which leads us to …
  2. Ask short questions. Really short. In the looking-for-love list, many questions are 10 words or fewer. The most effective questions are short variations on “what, when, how, why”.  Those words coax out explanations, which are chock-full of good information.  The shortest questions often get the longest answers.
  3. Avoid “yes or no” questions. They don’t encourage elaboration and can make your conversation feel more like an interrogation.
  4. Ask one question at a time. It’s easy to ask a two-for-one, something journalist John Sawatsky calls a “double barreled question”.  Something like: “When you complete your manufacturing process, do you ship immediately? And how do you decide which shipping method to use?”  Most people will only answer a half, forcing you to double back and ask again.
  5. Ask one last question. At the end of most business conversations, I ask, “is there anything else I should know?” When I was a television news reporter, I asked that at the end of every interview, and sometimes the response would reframe the entire conversation or even the news story.  Give your conversation partners a chance to fill in what you may have overlooked.

Few of us are moderating presidential debates or vetting Supreme Court candidates, but knowing how to pose good questions is a valuable business skill. But be careful with your new talent.  If you ask the right questions, someone might fall in love with you!

Kerri Richardson, Vice President 

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